I grow a fair number of Allium karataviense in the garden and the nursery. It’s flowering now, a tennis ball of soft amethyst nestling in a pair of dark blue-green leaves as handsome as any Hosta and as with Hostas the leaves of this Allium are a magnet for snails. At a distance the flowers aren’t showy but looked at closely they are astonishing. Each ball a hundred amethyst buds opening to silver stars with amethyst tips. I also grow a white flowered variety called ‘Ivory Queen’ which makes balls of sparkling green and white stars.
I have one bulb of the rare and especially beautiful Allium karataviense ssp henrikii. It flowered for the first time this year. Discovered, as recently as 1996 by Janis Ruksans, growing on scree slopes and, “...also in the cracks of rocks covered by a thin layer of soil” in hills near Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. This gives a clue as to the cultural requirements of this species. It grows best in an open spot where there is no competition for light from June until the end of November.
Allium karataviense ssp henrikii grows in one of my scree beds. These are raised beds, not mounds, enclosed by 30cm wide treated pine boards. The bed has lots of compost mixed through the soil to keep it open and I also mix in a fair amount of lime (ground limestone) as my soil is very acid. After planting the bulbs 10cm deep the bed is mulched to a depth of 3 or 4 cm with screened and washed 8 to 10mm of blue metal.
I grow the similar and equally beautiful Allium nevskianum from Tajikistan in the same bed as Allium karataviense ssp henrikii. Allium nevskianum flowers a little later and the flower head is a little smaller. Allium akaka which is a scree plant from the Talish Mountains in Azerbaijan, is like a diminutive Allium karataviense with, in the form I grow, golf ball size, pale amethyst flower heads held on short stalks above two wide blue-green leaves which were martyrs to snails this spring.
Not all Alliums are as particular as these species thank goodness. The Drumstick Onion, Allium sphaerocephalon, is one of the easiest of all bulbs to grow in the garden. I first saw it flowering in the garden at Charlston Farmhouse in Sussex where artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell made their home in 1916. The farmhouse became the country hub for the Bloomsbury Group of artists and intellectuals.
When Criss and I visited twenty odd years ago there were hundreds of Drumstick Alliums, in peak condition, flowering in one part of the garden. I never covet my neighbour’s house, ox or ass but my neighbour’s alliums. That’s another thing altogether.
As it happened I was no sooner back in Australia when a cut flower grower I knew brought a box of Allium spaerocephalon to the nursery as a swap for an Echinops he knew I had and which he wanted.
The garden here hasn’t been without the Drumstick Allium since. It isn’t at all particular as to soil and is just as happy in parts of the garden which aren’t watered at all as in other parts which are watered regularly. Allium sphaerocephalon doesn’t take up any horizontal space, its leaves and flowers grow bolt upright. This allows it to be grown amongst shrubs and perennials. At first the golf ball sized flower heads, which are held proud on 90cm tall stems, are green and they are at their most attractive just as they flush purple. In my garden they look terrific for six weeks from early December until well into January. It picks well and is gorgeous with a vase of the Asiatic Lily ‘Eyeliner’. I just cut the spent stems to the ground in lat January. The bulb soon shoots again as it is evergreen. To be continued.